PLYMOUTH, Ind. — It was a church wedding on a spring afternoon, and the couple was posing for snapshots. Scott Skiles watched silently through a window in the building next door. He knew the groom from high school. He wanted to yell out something — congratulations, maybe. But he kept his mouth shut, because if he yelled the guard would come and close off the window and there would be no outside at all, not even this little glimpse from behind the iron bars. And if there’s one thing you learn in jail, it’s to hang onto every little thing you get.
Where did Scott Skiles go after his brilliant basketball career at Michigan State? Here is where he went. To the Marshall County Jail. Fifteen days for violating probation with a drunken-driving charge. He walked in on a Friday morning, handed over his watch and his wallet, undressed, put on the undershirt and the pants and shoes, and followed the guards. He was supposed to stay alone. A private cell. It would be easier, he figured, than taking any crap from inmates who knew who he was. This jail was in the middle of his hometown, and he’d been a high school hero. Once.
The guards opened the door. The room was dark and tiny with no windows. He stepped inside and the concrete began to creep closer to him. The hell with privacy. “I’d rather go in with other people,” he said.
So in he went, with five other inmates, one toilet, one shower, one mattress per man, and 15 days to kill. Only here you never really kill time. You wrestle it, choke it, stomp on it and grind your heels. But there is always more. “Breakfast at 7 a.m.,” he said, “and then you just lie around. Lunch comes in at 11. Then you just lie around until dinner at 4. There’s hardly any room to move. The guards don’t even come in. They slip the food through a slot.”
You want to know how time passes in jail? Wait for the slot to open. That’s how time passes. You can try to sleep. But the lights are always on, even at night. You can make a phone call — one every other day, with the guards standing by. You can shower. Only the water in this cell was scalding.
“So hot,” Skiles said, “you couldn’t stand under it. You stood to the side and splashed it on you.” After a few days he asked a guard about it. The guard grinned.
“This ain’t no hotel, boy,” he said.
How far this was from the cheers, the halftime bands, the open court at Michigan State where Scott Skiles could run as fast as his legs would take him. He was arguably the best college guard in the country this season, a brilliant shooter, a deft passer, a live grenade in green sneakers. But here in the cell he had just enough room to do push-ups in the corner near the toilet.
“I felt like a caged animal,” he said. “I’m so active all the time. And now I couldn’t even walk around. There was nowhere to even pace. Guys had their mattresses on the floor. You couldn’t walk without bumping into someone.”
He rolled his neck, as if stiffening at the very thought of the cell.
“But,” he said, “I know that’s part of the punishment. It’s not supposed to be a place where you can go out and play ball. It wasn’t supposed to be fun. I knew that.”
Skiles was free now. He was sitting in an atrium lobby of a Holiday Inn coffee shop. He had done all 15 days, done what was expected. It was the longest he had gone since the second grade without touching a basketball. On his third day in jail, Skiles and his cell mates were watching a game on the black-and-white TV — one allowed per cell — when CBS ran a clip of his amazing behind-the-back pass against Georgetown. “Hey, man, you’re on there!” one of the inmates said. Skiles doesn’t remember answering. All he remembers is the feeling — seeing himself on tape, while the concrete and the bars and the stale air reminded him it was still days, days, before freedom — and the feeling was lousy. Terrible. Embarrassing. The worst of his life.
And thousands of people think he got off like a baby.
I made a mistake,” Skiles said, when asked about the drunken- driving arrest that led to the jail sentence. “One of the rules of probation was not being in a public place that served alcohol. For nine months I never violated that.”
He leaned forward. He hadn’t told this story to many people, certainly not to reporters. He was going to get it right. “This one night,” he said, “I was out with friends, we were playing pool, and they said, ‘We’re going to this club called B’Zar.’ I said, ‘I can’t go in there.’
“They didn’t pressure me. But I ended up going. For nine months I had been paranoid of even going into a restaurant that served liquor. I guess that one night I was tired of being the guy who couldn’t go anywhere.
“So I went in. I know that’s no excuse. I should’ve just stuck it out for three more months and it all would have been over. It’s not that I forgot. It’s just, you know, you’re 20, 21 years old, you don’t know what anything’s about. I still don’t know . . .”
He paused. His short blond hair was stringy and disheveled, and his face was set in that clenched jaw pose, the same face he uses when driving down the lane or whipping the ball over his shoulder or sinking a last-second shot. It is an angry face, or so it seems, even when he is not angry. Had he been blessed with an angel’s countenance, a Magic Johnson smile, Dale Murphy dimples, maybe people would have been kinder. Felt sorry for him. But they saw his pale skin and his gunfire eyes and the veins that bulged in his neck and they just figured this kid was guilty of everything he was accused of, and probably more. He received the probation when he pleaded guilty to a marijuana possession charge, following an arrest in which police charged him with having marijuana and cocaine.
Letters came in when Skiles was allowed to play for MSU after the drunken-driving arrest. Editorials were written. Angry. Horrified. People in his hometown spit at his name. The media hounded him. Fans in visiting arenas were downright cruel, as if they had some blood claim to vengeance, waving signs, hurling curses and shaking bags of sugar that suggested cocaine. “Guilty!” they said.
But guilty of what? The night he left that club, Skiles got in his car, drove “about 50 yards” and was stopped by police and charged with drunken driving. That clinched a jail sentence: not for drunken driving but for violating probation. There are suggestions that the police knew very well whom they were stopping. Skiles won’t rehash them. What’s the point?
“I could’ve taken a cab,” he said, “and everything would have been different. Why didn’t I? I remember there was a cab right there on the corner and I said to myself, ‘I should just jump in that.’ My friend’s house, where I was staying, was only two blocks away. Two blocks. Why didn’t I just take a cab? But I didn’t want to leave my car there. So I got in and I was arrested about 50 yards later. . . . “
He shrugged. “People have visions of me swerving all over a four-lane highway. But that’s not the way it was.”
In the jail cell, Skiles would drape his undershirt over his eyes to try to escape. But sleep came hard. The shirt smelled, because he had to wear the same one for a week at a time. On Mother’s Day, he tried to call home. His mother was in church. His father answered. Skiles said hello, then hung up quickly so the guard would think he hadn’t gotten through. Didn’t work. The guard heard him. He had used up his one call.
People who figure 15 days in jail is nothing have never spent 15 minutes there. For a guy with a nowhere life and a nowhere job, it’s a dull change of a dull pace. For a college student who puts miles on his sneakers every day, it’s torture. Time becomes a leech on the mind, and it doesn’t take long before you feel the life forces draining.
“When I woke up the first morning in there it was so hot, I was covered with sweat, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, boy, it’s true. I’m really in here,’
” Skiles said. “I said to myself, ‘No way I’m gonna make it through 15 days.’
“Some of the guys in there were from my hometown. They had seen me play in high school. One guy talked about the year we won the state championship
(1982). But we didn’t talk much. Nobody did. There’s no sense in talking and laughing, ’cause it would all be fake. Nobody’s happy.”
Skiles blew out a lung full of air. He talked about waking up each morning with a day count on his brain. About talking to his mother through the visitors’ glass, and hearing the guard say his 10 minutes were up. About seeing that church wedding through the barred window and feeling helpless, paralyzed. Imprisoned. His voice was flat. These were answers to questions, that’s all.
“Look,” he said. “I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me because I had to spend time in there. That’s not why I’m telling you this. I know the law. I know what I did and I’m sorry for it. It was probably good for me to sit in there for 15 days. I will never drink and drive again, I’ll tell you that. I never, ever want to go back there.”
Isn’t that what jail is supposed to accomplish?
But you pay and sometimes you keep paying. Scott Skiles is NBA material, and the NBA draft is June 17. For other young college players, it’s the pot of gold. Yet when Skiles spoke of it, he did in a somber voice, an old voice. He was a first-team All-America, an honor that should lock you as a top pick, yes? But jail. Always jail. What will it do to his future? He doesn’t know, but he began that future Tuesday by working out at the Indiana Pacers’ mini-camp in Indianapolis.
“Let’s face it,” he said, frowning. “Any team that makes me a first-round selection has a public relations problem right away, right from day one. ‘Why did you pick him?’ people will say. ‘What about his trouble?’ You know that. I know it. People who say (that) this won’t affect my chances don’t know what they’re talking about.”
He rested his elbows on the table. He didn’t look at anything, just up, then down. “You know,” he said suddenly, “I think that anyone who sits down and talks to me realizes I’m not an alcoholic, realizes, you know, I don’t have a drug problem. . . . Maybe you can’t tell that from just sitting down with someone, but you can get a pretty good idea, can’t you? But teams aren’t even taking time to interview me. That’s why I’m getting the impression they’re not really interested in me, at least not in saying, ‘If Scott Skiles were available by this pick he’d be our first choice.’
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m ready to play. But, I don’t know. A few years ago if you’d have told me I couldn’t play in the pros it would have killed me. Now, with all the stuff I’ve been through, it’s not live or die with me anymore. It’s not gonna kill me if I can’t.”
As he talked, this kid — and remember he is but 22 years old; how grown-up were you at that age? — this kid who led his team to within two games of the Final Four, who blistered opponents, who probably dreamed of the NBA draft only, say, forever, this kid who was always on fire when it came to basketball, appeared suddenly weary and uninspired, like a schoolboy awaiting a detention hall.
It was impossible to listen to him and not sense a loss.
When he got out of jail last Saturday, Skiles immediately drove to Indianapolis to see a friend who was graduating from college. That evening, they went to a supermarket, and Skiles, who was ready to slip out through his own rib cage for a chance to play basketball, spotted a man and his two kids playing on a nearby court. “I’ll be back in a bit,” Skiles said to his friend.
He walked to the court. The man did not know who he was. Nor did his kids.
“I’ve just been dying to shoot some baskets,” Skiles said. “Do you mind if I shoot with you?”
The family said OK. Skiles picked up the ball, threw up a shot, then the kids rebounded and threw up their own, then he got the rebound and dribbled out and shot, and so on. A nowhere court. A department store basketball. “It felt so good,” Skiles said. For those few moments, away from everything but the pure joy of the dribble dance, gravity was the only thing keeping the ball and the shooter from sailing off into joyous space.
This is where we should leave Scott Skiles. Anonymous on a basketball court, the thumping of a ball in sync with his heartbeat. Enough already of the snide jokes, the spitting when his name is mentioned, the letters to him recommending Alcoholics Anonymous. Enough of the self-righteous posture and show-no-mercy lectures. Have you never known anyone to get in a car after a couple of drinks? Jail is in his past, as indelibly as an ink stain on your best shirt. For a couple of mistakes. For being belligerent. OK. He did all that. Enough already.
“People don’t realize I’m intelligent enough to know I let them down,” said Skiles, who will return to MSU this summer to complete work on his degree. “I know I let them down. People in my hometown. People in East Lansing. That’s harder on me than anything else.
“It was just a mistake, a foolish mistake, and I’ll regret it until . . . until the day people forget about it. Until it’s not printed next to my name in the newspaper. Until I stop getting letters about being in trouble.”
He looked the questioner in the eye. “Maybe 10 years from now, if for some reason my name should still be in print, there’ll only be something good after it. But for quite a while, I’m sure it won’t be that way. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about that. I wish there was. . . . “
He got up from the table. In his jeans and polo shirt and clean-shaven face, he seemed far too young for such a conversation. But it was over. He said thanks and he left the Holiday Inn, walking out through the double glass doors. He did not see the people at the counter who turned to stare at him. And it was just as well.
What is behind Scott Skiles and what is ahead of him matter little compared to what is inside him. And what is inside him, for a long time, will be churning and chawing and eating him up. He has learned his lesson. Enough already. Let him be.
CUTLINE Scott Skiles at the Marshall County Jail on Saturday: relief after 15 days in a cell. In background is Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote. Plymouth, Ind., hasn’t forgotten its 1982 state championship team, led by Scott Skiles.